Tassles on the Fringe
They Lie ... Sometimes
excerpted from the book
the difference in world view
between the United States
and everybody else
by Nicholas Von Hoffman
Nation Books, 2004, paper
The Romans conquered their known world more or less with their
bare hands through a discipline which terms like "work ethic"
do not begin to describe. These republicans routinely committed
what we consider atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Jesus was not the only guy they tacked up on a cross. They were
known to line both sides of their highways (road building was
one of their things, too) with crucified people. Modern Americans
share a penchant for capital punishment with the Romans but may
draw a line at a Julius Caesar who would go into enemy-towns in
what is now France, chop off the sword hands of every able bodied
man and then write home bragging about it.
Those dreaming of an American empire might
ask themselves if they have the moxie for it. The empire business,
c~ when viewed from an individual's point of view, is similar
to capital punishment. Unless you know you've got what it takes
to stick the needles in the veins of the condemned, you shouldn't
be arguing for it. To win and run an empire you need a Roman stomach.
You need to be able to destroy homes, burn villages, torture captives,
shoot hostages, rape women in front of their parents, carry out
reprisals on innocents; those kinds of activities. The Republican
Romans could do those things, and once upon a time, the monarchical
British, the Spanish, and so forth could do likewise. We Americans
have also had our little imperial moments, but today ... acts
of that kind are not acceptable.
Ancient Rome is an example of preemptive,
aggressive warfare by a democracy, but the contemporary blood
and guts party uses the imperial concept to push another, related
policy. They have stumbled on the Pax Romana, the two hundred
year period after the republic was replaced by autocracy, from
the reign of Augustus to that of Marcus Aurelius, when the millions
within the empire's boundaries lived in peace. In emulation there
is to be a Pax Americana, or a supervision of the globe by the
United States under which human kind thrives in amity and free
trade. For the Roman army, however, the Pax was more like a pox
than a pax. The fighting on the borders of the empire was endless
and involved the home team absorbing some costly military defeats.
Pax Americana sounds altruistic, idealistic, and laudably boy-scoutish-the
generous Americans doing something good again-but it can't be
enforced with our atomic-tipped spears, as the frustrating American
experience in Iraq should make obvious. Weapons of mass destruction,
automated warfare, women soldiers in front of monitors in darkened
rooms typing instructions to obedient, electronic bombs will doubtless
have a part to play in the upcoming war with China, but for the
ordinary work of peace-keeping or nation-building or making the
natives behave, it is boots on the ground, as the generals say.
Pax Americana will be infantry and military police going to uncomfortable,
fly blown, flea bitten, far away places where funny little dyspeptic
people take pot shots at them. Americans do not have Roman mettle.
There will be few volunteers.
In the 21st century it seems that Americans
talk the talk of military action, but walking the walk is another
matter. War movies depicting the heroic battlefield deeds of our
grandparents and ancestors are hits, and occasions for actors
and politicians to give speeches which bring tears to the eyes.
We can boast of gigantic armies of arcade warriors and combat
veterans of Nintendo wars, people who glory in watching the high-IQ
munitions demonstrations the Pentagon puts on television. In America
the rugged life culture, the kind from which soldiers spring,
is confined to watching TV survivor programs.
The armed services maintain their manpower levels by making out
that they are as much trade schools as military organizations.
Even in periods when unemployment is up and jobs are hard to come
by, there are no waiting lists for places in the armed services.
A hundred years ago many judges gave riffraff convicted of not-too-terrible
crimes the choice of the penitentiary or signing up with the peace-time
army. With the coming of the Cold War, permanent peace-time conscription
was set in place and the services dispensed with the riffraff.
Permanent conscription ended in the 1970S when too many draftees
were coming home from Vietnam in body bags. The heat was too much
for the politicians, who had to end the draft.
Though Social Security has been called the third rail of American
politics, it is low voltage compared to deviating from the party
line on the Middle East.
As far back as the 1980s, 11-term Republican
Congressman Paul Findley and Charles Percy, chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, earned themselves early retirement
from elective politics for minor acts of deviation from the submissive
party line on the State of Israel. Both Findley and Percy, a three-term
Senator whose heresies on the question were quite mild, lost in
close elections after their opponents got significant material
assistance from pro-Israeli activists. Debate on Israel is an
impermissible subject under the dome, although elsewhere in the
world, including in Israel itself, policy disputes about who did
what right and who did it wrong and what should be done next can
be carried on without worrying that your next word will be the
last I which will be accorded serious attention.
Findley was defeated in his bid for a
12th term by a combination of redistricting and the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, an acronym which strikes fear
in the hearts of Washington politicians who are desperate for
campaign money and fearful that AIPAC may, instead, give the money
to their rivals. Findley was so scarred by what happened to him
that he has written five books on the general subject of Israeli
politics and has made
The following from the Washington Post in the winter of 2003 shows
how saying the wrong thing makes a politician a nonperson: "Jewish
organizations condemned Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) yesterday
for delivering what they said were anti-Semitic remarks at an
antiwar forum in Reston . . .
"At the forum, attended by about
120 people at St. Anne's Episcopal Church on March 3, Moran discussed
why he thought antiwar sentiment was not more effective in the
" 'If it were not for the strong
support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would
not be doing this,' Moran said, '. . . The leaders of the Jewish
community are influential enough that they could change the direction
of where this is going, and I think they should.'
"Moran, a seven-term incumbent representing
Alexandria, Arlington County and part of Fairfax County, yesterday
apologized in a statement, saying, 'I made some insensitive remarks
that I deeply regret.' "
Moran's apologies did him no good. He
was stripped of his position as regional minority whip in the
House of Representatives, threatened with opposition in the next
Democratic primary and roundly denounced by rabbis and other important
Jewish and non-Jewish figures. Threats of the kind aimed at Moran
are not to be taken lightly. The American Israel Public Affairs
Committee, a lobbying and political money organization with a
reputation as being at least as dangerous and/or helpful as the
fabled American Association of Retired People (AARP), can crush
a politician with the same crinkly sound and authority as a heel
on a cockroach. Hence the slobbering, undignified apology of a
man forced to take back words which he believes to be true.
If James Moran is not an anti-Semite,
there are antiSemites under the dome, but nobody can say how many.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which counts overt anti-Semitic
acts, reports that they are occurring at the rate of about fifteen
hundred a year and are markedly up on college campuses. That anti-Semitism
is more prevalent than it has been is the opinion of Harvard University
President Lawrence H. Summers who says of himself, "I am
Jewish, identified but hardly devout." Last September he
told an audience in Memorial Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
"Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly antiIsraeli
have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated
right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly
finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious
and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are
anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."
The feeling of being gagged and intimidated is apparently growing
and, with it, a resentment which has a nasty edge. People taking
Summers' position, that is, vociferously proIsrael, can have little
sense of the existence of a large number of discreet individuals
who hold opinions diametrically opposite to his own, although,
since they seem to be all over, a person such as Summers probably
deals with some of them every day in his own office. They will
keep their traps shut and tell him not what they think, but what
they know he wants to think that they think. Some of those people
dissembling in front of him may also be Jewish. It is not only
non-Jews who take discretion over valor and keep their opinions
to themselves when it comes to dangerous topics.
Since 9/l1 it seems that the number of
silent dissenters has markedly increased and since the Iraqi invasion
they have been joined by more subterranean grumblers. The secret
resentment and anger is not unlike an underground peat fire. You
know it's there but how deep it smolders and how long and how
hot it may burn, no one can say.
In the land of the free and the home of the timid and intimidated,
the President goes to war for reasons he cannot explain and it
is better to let him do it than truncate your future by arguing.
In the misty life of the biosphere, protesting has become something
akin to a monastic vocation. Once you do it, you find you have
crossed a line and become a tassel on the political fringe. You
run the risk of being referred to as an activist or even a militant,
which is but a few degrees south of crackpot.
The American custom is to forgive a person
one protest. After that you must live a blameless political life
within the confines of the two-party system. A second protest
and you are a -winger, left or right, but whichever side of the
bird you are assigned, your goose is cooked. You become like Ramsey
Clark, United States Attorney General in the Lyndon Johnson administration,
now condemned to wander the earth as a mendicant friar, begging
justice in mostly lost causes.
The people of the crystal dome have been known to become agitated
when it is revealed to them that their government has not told
them the truth. They soon forget, which makes it possible for
them to be surprised, upset, and angry when it happens again.
America is quite an old country, already well into its third century,
and by now its people have been lied to more times than a month
of TV commercials, but they still get upset at being told untruths
by those whom they have elected. This is said to be a sign of
the nation's enduring idealism and high ethical standards. That
may be so, or it may be a sign of political infantilism, a refusal
to recognize that one has grown up and been allotted a place in
the adult world of nations.
From the Spanish-American War forward there have been an unending
series of official cock and bull stories which have been taken
as sober fact by the public. Some of the stories were so obviously
unbelievable that the masses had to be complicitous in their own
deception. The idea that the enfeebled Spanish government, collapsing
in imperial desuetude, would for no reason blow up the battleship
Maine as it visited one of its ports is self-evident trash, but
highly serviceable for starting the 1898 Spanish-American War.
World War I propaganda about Prussian
Schrecklichkeit or terrorism based itself on countless, fictitious
stories of murder, plunder and rape. The American imagination
was, from 1916 to 1918, littered with women dishonored and babies
bayoneted by the slobbering Hun.
In the 1930s a certain number of Americans fought free of amnesia
and remembered what they had been told by their betters about
Germany in the months leading up to World War I. When similar
stories about the Nazis began coming out of Germany twenty years
later, they did not believe. Fool me once, your fault; fool me
twice, mine. Some of these people supported the America First
isolationist movement, which opposed involvement in the European
war. In general, however, lying does work. If it didn't, fewer
politicians would do it; although as the Bush-Iraq fiasco demonstrates,
some artfulness, some talent and intelligence is needed.
Lying and/or withholding the facts-which
is much the same thing-is often done for the public's good. When
the Japanese air force sank or severely damaged all the battleships
of the United States' Pacific Fleet, Americans were not told about
it. Not only didn't American officials admit what had happened,
they told reporters that ships which were resting on the bottom
of the sea at Pearl Harbor were still afloat. The Japanese had
planes zipping over the American naval base; they knew what they
had sunk. They could see it. The lying was strictly for home consumption.
Officials also played down the fact that
during the 1930s America was supplying Japan with the materiel
for its armed forces. Though not prominent in the newspapers,
it was a common, if bitter, belief in New York that when the 6th
Avenue "E1" was torn down the scrap was sold to Japan-
which returned it in the form of bullets and bombs. The selling
of arms to putative enemies predates Iraq by a millennium or two.
How the people in government thought they
could get away with some of their whoppers is past imagining.
After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, talk started getting
around that there were post-bomb deaths caused by radiation. The
government immediately denied it and the head of the Manhattan
Project, Major General Leslie R. Groves, pronounced that, "This
talk about radio-activity is so much nonsense." What was
the point of that one? And how long did they think they could
get away with it? So much high level lying is purposeless, done
from habit. How else to explain the line of half-baked, nutty,
next-day refutable lies coming out of the Bush White House about
weapons, terrorists, plans, and intentions?
American prisoners being returned by the
North Koreans after the cease-fire ended hostilities in 1953 were
ordered to sign statements promising not to discuss anything having
to do with captivity to any media representative not bound by
Pentagon censorship rules. Washington did not want the country
to know about the degree and kind of collaboration with the enemy
which took place in the prison camps.
The peccadilloes of the Korean War have
been lost in the continuing miasma about the truths and the falsities
of the Vietnam War. Long book shelves are devoted to volumes discussing
lies told, lies exposed, and lies retold in connection with that
war, whose shadow falls obliquely on George Bush's Dance in the
Desert almost forty years later.
Officially, the full Vietnam War began
with events in the Gulf of Tonkin, August 1 and 4, 1964, when,
according to the American government, a couple of North Vietnamese
patrol boats attacked a U.S. destroyer.
This was the lie upon which Congress voted,
with only two nay votes in the Senate and none in the House, what
amounted to a declaration of war. But was the report of the action
in the Tonkin Gulf a lie? And if it was a lie, what kind of a
lie? To this day there is considerable doubt that a second attack
ever occurred, but what of the first? Whatever kind of attack
it was, the destroyer survived unscathed and probably untouched
by the arrows, spears, and whatever else a tiny patrol boat could
launch at a mighty modern cruiser.
The nation and its editorial pages launched
their own attacks against the North Vietnamese, as every institution
of authority and prestige, and all major media, including the
Washington Post and the New York Times, cheered the oncoming war,
which would eventually see a half a million American troops engaged-of
whom more than ten percent would come back dead. Later on many
who could not wait to get on with the war would say they had been
lied to and that, if they had known the truth, they would never
have supported sending the boys over there.
If a person studies history for a short while, it will come to
the person that the government lies a lot, maybe even all the
time. If you know that they lie, you may be able to see that the
lie of the hour is farcical and far fetched; you know to disbelieve
When, on December 29,1989, with little public notice, more than
20,000 American soldiers invaded Panama, the reason given was
the capture of the country's drug pusher-CIA operative-dictator-and-bully
boy Manuel Noriega. The actual reasons are subject to speculation
to this day. The invasion may have been to make Panamanians understand
that the independence the United States had recently granted them
and their canal was for show only. Or it may have been that Noriega,
a dirt bag if there ever was one, had been party to deals with
the American government and the administration of Bush the elder
was afraid he'd try his hand at blackmail. Noriega was taken off
to Florida, where he got a taste of American courtroom justice
and was thrown into a dungeon, where he resides as of this writing.
The events in and around the Panama invasion
are open to the vilest interpretations because the only reporters
the government allowed were literally kept locked up in a warehouse
until the fun was over. The festivities included the deaths of
2,000 and the wounding of perhaps 70,000 Panamanians, as well
as the burning of parts of their capital city. Although a few
malcontents have brought the Panama episode up from time to time,
overall the government's lying by silence and secrecy seems to
have worked well for the people in charge.
A coup de main brought off by a brigade
or two of soldiers, and even perhaps the unexplained deaths, could
be done by lying through stealth and censorship, but Gulf War
I was too big to be done without somebody saying something, true
or untrue. You would have thought that Saddam Hussein's indefensible
invasion of Kuwait was enough, but, a la World War I, the western
ministries of truth had to gild the lily, updating the old Hun
atrocity stories about killing babies, etc. Why did they make
up tales of atrocities about Saddam when there were bucketfuls
of authenticated stories about his murders, rapes, tortures and
thefts? It is almost as if the government liars wished to discredit
themselves and their cause.
They also made overreaching claims concerning
the ability of the United States Air Force to perform "surgical
strikes," which all but eliminated civilian casualties unless
Saddam was using them as hostages (as if killing a few civilians
ever stopped any army anywhere or anytime). This prevarication
got the military involved in a succession of controversies each
time one of its bombs went awry and killed "innocent"
civilians. (Parenthetically, are there any other kind of civilians,
and is one justified, if there are, in killing "guilty"
ones, or is the term one more cliché of the propagandist's
craft? Its use, which is almost universal, is a sure clue the
speaker is selling a point of view.)
You would think that in a war easily won
against an all but impotent opponent, the winning side might want
to pick up credit by scrupulously telling the truth. Losers are
always liars, but why should winners be the same? Commanding General
Norman Schwarzkopf told the press that, "The Patriot's success,
of course, is known to everyone. It's one hundred percent."
President Bush, the elder, said much the same thing, when the
military knew perfectly well this missile could not hit the broad
side of a barn on a sunny day. These lies were probably not primarily
aimed at the inhabitants of the biosphere but at Israeli citizens.
The United States did not want Israel in the war for fear it would
rile up its Arab allies, but Saddam was hurling his own inaccurate,
but nevertheless frightening, missiles at Israel. Since it would
take a few days to shut the Iraqis down, it was decided to lie
to the Israelis, who were to think they were protected when they
That kind of lying works. It is a political
version of the placebo effect. If a trustworthy and respected
source says something false, it will be taken for true even against
the evidence of one's eyes and ears. They would not lie if people
did not believe the lies, and to make acceptance more likely,
about half of what they say is true. But there is no easy method
for figuring out which half.
The pattern repeats itself in Iraq. If
you wanted to go to war regardless of the excuse, or if you didn't
care particularly or weren't interested in politics or you accepted
whatever your betters told you, then you took the shoddy stuff
that Bush, Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld were pumping
out with no questions asked. All the newspapers and television
stations echoed back at the boss politicians, "Good to go!",
and from one end of the vast crystalline biosphere to the other,
the cry went up, "Ready to rumble, red, white, and blue!"